Top news stories of 2023


Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt Closes

The Washington State Department of Corrections announced on June 26 that Larch Corrections Center, a minimum security prison in Yacolt, would close. Although public officials throughout Clark County objected, noting the invaluable aid the prison provided county-wide, the facility closed on Oct. 10.

The closure was in response to a declining incarcerated population, a press release stated. Only 70% of available beds were occupied across the Department of Correction’s (DOC) 12 prisons.

Larch was identified for closure because of its minimum security level, remote location and need for repairs that would have cost tens of millions of dollars, DOC spokesperson Chris Wright said.

“DOC has worked diligently to lower recidivism rates, create better neighbors and ensure that incarcerated individuals don’t return to us once they get out. Of course, our continued success means we can no longer afford to operate all of the prisons we currently have,” Cheryl Strange, secretary for the DOC, stated in a press release.

In addition to county and city officials, Clark County fire officials in prime wildfire areas objected because their departments relied on inmate crews trained by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to help firefighting efforts.

Shuttering Larch and its firefighting ability would remove a critical resource for Fire District 13, Fire District 13 Division Chief Chuck Andrus Andrus said in a letter sent to Gov. Jay Inslee.

Regionally, Andrus noted the crews aided with the 2020 Big Hollow Fire, which burned more than 24,000 acres of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Closer to home, the 2022 Nakia Creek Fire burned about 1,900 acres in southeast Clark County, with roughly 3,000 homes evacuated.

Smaller wildfires also receive Larch support, Andrus wrote. He said in an email, he couldn’t think of a wildfire his district has been involved in that didn’t involve crews from Larch.

Andrus noted that Inslee’s own proclamation acknowledged “a need to have all necessary firefighting resources readily available.”

“I’d encourage you to look at Larch Corrections as part of that solution,” Andrus wrote to Inslee.

Members of Washington state’s 17th and 18th legislative districts, who represent east and central Clark County, signed a letter to Strange and Inslee expressing “strong opposition” to the closure of Larch.

“The closure would impede positive relationships and hinder efforts to reduce recidivism since access to visitation is crucial for incarcerated individuals,” the letter stated. “We urge you to reconsider the decision to close Larch Correctional Center and work towards preserving its invaluable contributions to our community and the state at large.”

Larch Corrections inmates also provided valuable aid to towns and cities in the area. In Yacolt,  the town’s public works and fire departments will have to move forward without the help of inmates after over a decade of cooperation.

“We completely relied on them,” Yacolt Mayor Katie Listek said. “[The inmates] are like part of the team. We’re used to them being here.”

Crews contain La Center’s 34-acre fire

A fire sparked on a rural property near La Center on Aug. 16 drew a large firefighter response from throughout the county and Larch Corrrections Center. Luckily for the surrounding area, only buildings on the property were lost in the 34-acre blaze.

Later that week, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue Chief Ben Peeler said the fire was 100% contained. The fire was still not completely “controlled,” which Peeler explained was a designation given to a blaze where firefighters have advanced a certain point past the containment line.

Although the blaze claimed the home where it originated and several outbuildings, it did not engulf structures on other properties, Peeler said. He noted one home near the fire was successfully saved due to preventative efforts. Fire crews received great help by a nearby property owner who dug a ditch with a farm equipment that kept the blaze from spreading.

Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency initially announced a top-level evacuation order for a half mile around the property shortly before 6 p.m. Aug. 16. It had grown to more than a mile radius about an hour later. By the following day, the order was downgraded, and by Friday no areas required immediate evacuation.

During the height of the fire response, as many as 100 personnel were on hand, with 75 actively taking care of the remaining blaze as of Friday, Peeler said.

One evacuee, BJ Jarvis, said watching the blaze push further against his property Wednesday was scary.

“I’m in such a hurry and a panic that it’s, you know, I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off and trying to get out of here safely,” he said at the time. “Watching my family farm kind of, you know, at risk because I’m on the back side of that fire, is something else, man.”

“I’m just glad that I could get out in time,” Jarvis added. “I hope that everybody else does, too, and I hope that everybody gets to be out and safe.”

Expansions at ilani Casino Resort continue

Development on the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s reservation continued as ilani Casino Resort added a new 14-story building and began expanding its 10,000-square-foot meeting and entertainment center.

The new 14-story ilani Hotel off I-5 opened April 24. The hotel contains 300 rooms with 28 suites that span in size up to 1,600 square feet, a press release from ilani stated. It features an indoor pool with a retractable wall allowing for outdoor lounging, a lobby cafe, a fitness center and a top-floor restaurant with views out onto the Clark County landscape.

The passage connecting the existing ilani building to the new hotel is a “tunnel of time.” The corridor features hand-selected items from the tribe’s collection of historical artifacts and items created specifically for the space, a release from ilani stated. A light fixture featuring many hand-carved canoe panels illuminates the hallway, while video displays along the walls show teachings and footage of the homelands of the tribe.

Further expansion is underway and will continue through 2024, following the groundbreaking at ilani’s meeting and entertainment center on Feb. 14. The addition will add 10,000 square feet to the 30,000-square-foot center, which opened in 2018. The expansion will feature flexible meeting space that can serve as separate breakout rooms and more “pre-function” space or a separate “junior” ballroom, ilani President and General Manager Kara Fox-LaRose said. The expansion will also include an outdoor terrace, plus additional restrooms and office space.

Cowlitz Spiritual Leader Tanna Engdahl said the expansion reflects the changing nature of the tribe.

“We were not a static people. Our villages were always in adjustment,” Engdahl said.

She said the tribe’s nature is to provide the kind of opportunities the continued improvements on the reservation allow.

“As potlatch people, we want the very best for our guests,” Engdahl said. “We want them to come, feel comfortable, be entertained, be happy.”

I-5 Bridge Replacement Program progresses

Considerable progress has been made for the I-5 Bridge Replacement Program (IBR), which will eventually replace the aging bridge with century-old spans. Legislators signed tolling laws, and the project received $600 million in funding during 2023.

On May 9, Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5765, which authorized tolling along the bridge to fund the IBR project, which is estimated to cost $5 billion to $7.5 billion.

Following the signing, state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, made a statement alongside primary sponsor Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, announcing the passage of the bill into law.

“Tolls helped pay for the bridge that stands today, and tolls will be what helps achieve our goal of replacing it,” Cleveland, a secondary sponsor for the bill, said. “Tolling provides a fair and equitable way to fund this essential project, which in turn ensures its long-term viability for future generations.”

The base rate of tolling will range from $2.15 to $3.55. Currently, the tolling has a “forecast horizon” of 2067, IBR program Financial Structures Lead Brent Baker said.

In December, U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, from Washington’s Third District, and Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray announced IBR will receive $600 million in federal funds from the Department of Transportation’s National Infrastructure Project Assistance Program, or Mega program, as stated in a press release by MGP Press on Dec. 15.

The $600 million grant will fund 8% to 12% of the estimated total project cost. The project remains eligible for other sources of federal funding, including the DOT Bridge Investment Program and the Federal Transit Administration Capital Investment Grant, the press release stated.

“From day one, it’s been my mission to bring our federal tax dollars back to Southwest Washington to replace the deteriorating, functionally obsolete I-5 Bridge. It’s the only way we get this huge project done,” Gluesenkamp Perez said in the release. “I’m excited these efforts have paid off. This Mega program award will be a major step forward toward strengthening the safety and efficiency of this vital interstate artery.”

The I-5 Bridge is crucial for the regional and national economy and plays a vital role in transporting freight along the I-5 corridor. IBR reports that $132 million of freight crossed the I-5 Bridge daily in 2020.